MADISON, Wis. -- When Doug Fumagalli coached his son's youth football games, he couldn't help but notice that Troy Fumagalli possessed a special talent. Even at a level at which athletic development can lag far behind desire, Troy was a natural pass-catcher.
"You could basically throw a football anywhere," Doug said. "He catches it with one hand. And he picks up the ball in flight very well. On some of those things, you can't work at it. You either have it or not, and he just had it."
For years, that skill set has been the first thing people see when they watch Wisconsin's Troy Fumagalli on the football field from afar. In May, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. even listed him as the fourth-best underclassman tight end prospect for the 2017 NFL draft. But a closer look reveals the truly remarkable breadth of his ability, as Fumagalli has excelled despite playing with nine fingers.
Fumagalli was born with amniotic band syndrome, caused when fibrous amniotic bands wrap around fetal parts and cut off circulation to limbs or digits while a baby is in the womb. His father said Troy's left index finger was so underdeveloped that it required amputation days after he was born. Troy also has scars on four other fingers from the same surgery to ensure they would receive proper circulation.
"It hasn't bothered me," Fumagalli said. "I don't care if anyone asks me about it. I guess I've just been used to it my whole life. It happened at birth, so I don't know any better. If you were to ask me if I imagined a finger on my left hand, I feel like that's in the way of things. I wouldn't want it there. It's kind of weird, if you think about it like that."
Fumagalli, a 6-foot-6, 247-pound redshirt junior, already has caught more passes this season than he did a year ago. He leads the Badgers with 29 receptions, good for 351 yards and a touchdown, and will be a key part of the passing game when No. 8 Wisconsin plays at Northwestern on Saturday (noon ET, ABC). The Badgers, who still harbor College Football Playoff aspirations, haven't won in Evanston since 1999.
Wisconsin running back Dare Ogunbowale said the most unbelievable aspect of Fumagalli's success isn't simply that he has nine fingers. It's that he doesn't have one of the most critical fingers necessary to corral a football.
"When you catch a pass, you're using most of your thumbs and your index finger," Ogunbowale said. "So you say nine fingers, oh you can do it. But the thing is he's missing one of his index fingers. So it's amazing. ... He's a great blocker, great pass-catcher. He does everything that we need a tight end to do, and he's doing it with nine fingers. It's impressive how he does it."
Fumagalli, 22, grew up the youngest of three brothers, and football ran in the family. Drew, 29, played football for five years at Dayton as a linebacker. Ross, 27, played linebacker at Dayton. Their father was a member of the Holy Cross football team. While the older brothers were participating in team sports as kids, Doug and his wife, Char, wondered whether their youngest son's hand would hinder him athletically.
"At first, I didn't know," Doug said. "We'd have to wait and see over time. It probably bothered me more because I was a little bit more self-conscious about it. So after a while you get over that, and he turned out to be just a very good athlete in general."
Doug said concerned parents would occasionally approach him during games when they saw Troy's hand and inquire about the backstory. But Troy grew up with the same circle of friends in Naperville, Illinois, and neither he nor his family members can recall any instances in which his hand was the source of criticism or jokes from others. Perhaps that has been due, in part, to Troy's sense of humor about the whole thing. Oldest brother Drew said he could remember Troy joking with friends about it as early as kindergarten or the first grade.
"Honestly, I just marvel that it's never been an issue, really," Drew said. "So I guess if anything, I marvel at his mental approach to the whole thing. It doesn't even faze him."
Ross added that he hadn't engaged in any conversation with Troy about his hand, mostly because Troy has never considered it to be a disadvantage. Ogunbowale noted that Fumagalli's hand has been discussed so infrequently among the Badgers that Ogunbowale recently was talking to a teammate who didn't know Fumagalli was missing a finger -- a teammate, Ogunbowale said, who had been on the team for three years.
The only instance in which Fumagalli references his hand is when the topic of baseball surfaces in the locker room. Sometimes, Fumagalli will show teammates how he used to grip the ball as a left-handed pitcher in high school. Because he was missing his index finger, the baseball came out of his hand with natural movement and made him difficult to hit.
"I couldn't throw anything straight," Troy said. "It would always move. I think that helped me out. They say when you throw a curveball, all the pressure comes off the middle finger and you kind of play around with that. That helped me out a bunch."
Fumagalli briefly considered a college baseball career. But he underwent growth plate surgery on his left elbow during high school and soon turned his attention to football, where he thrived as a two-way player. He caught 64 passes for 1,770 yards and finished with 172 career tackles. He used to play with a special glove with the left index finger slot sewn shut. But in recent seasons, he has taken to cutting the gloves with scissors because he goes through a new pair every Saturday.
Fumagalli turned down full-ride scholarship offers at other programs to accept a grayshirt offer from Wisconsin, which meant he would have to wait at least one or two years to earn a scholarship. Even during his redshirt season with the team in 2013, however, it was clear that he had the potential to be a special player, and he has since earned that scholarship.
"Everyone knew when Troy came in he was going to be a really good pass-catcher," said Badgers linebacker T.J. Watt, who arrived as a tight end in Fumagalli's class. "He was really good at running routes. It was hard to compete against him in that area."
Fumagalli played in all 14 games as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and made two starts. He has developed as a blocker and become a more complete player. Now the Badgers' go-to tight end, he certainly appears to be the next in a long line of Wisconsin stars at the position.
In the meantime, Fumagalli will continue to do what he has done since youth football. And that is catch passes without ever giving a second thought to potential physical barriers.
"It's not really a topic that comes up often," Ogunbowale said. "Maybe if he starts dropping passes, we might bring it up. But until then, nothing's different."